Alan Hubbard

It was always my intention to sit down and write a book about the stories behind the stories of my days in the newspaper business. I wanted to call it "the funny side of the street" - the street being Fleet Street, that is.

Or rather, it was.

However I never got round to it and now I have been beaten to the punch, and brilliantly so, by an old mate and contemporary who has produced his own memoirs of those times a few decades ago that we remember with great affection, and wish they were still with us now.

John Jackson, known to us all simply as "Jacko", was a seasoned newspaperman who was instrumental in transferring sport from the back pages to the front. He led a regiment of reporters who covered the major sporting events around the globe and who always set off to seek the tales of the unexpected. They cheerily revelled in the name "The Rotters" largely because they were viewed as such by some of the more orthodox sports scribes who were more occupied with what occurred on the field, than off.

Jacko and company had no qualms about upsetting such sensibilities. They were the ones who asked awkward questions. Blazers blanched at Royal Ascot and Henley when they saw them approaching through the doors of the interview rooms, with Jacko always at the forefront of the inquisitors.

But we are not talking Martin Bashir here. There was nothing malevolent or fraudulent in the material they produced for the public prints, notably the tabloids. More often than not it was fun, embellished a bit here and there maybe but nonetheless it always made a good read.

Such can now be said about Jackson's self-published book, Reflections of a Mirror Man now available on Amazon at £9.99 ($14.10/€11.50) covering his 35 years in Fleet Street during which he reported from 22 Olympic Games, 10 football World Cups, 55 Wimbledons, a whole host of Test cricket tours, FA Cup finals and Commonwealth Games.

John Jackson reported from 22 Olympic Games, 10 football World Cups, 55 editions of Wimbledon and many other sporting events ©John Jackson/Amazon
John Jackson reported from 22 Olympic Games, 10 football World Cups, 55 editions of Wimbledon and many other sporting events ©John Jackson/Amazon

His brief was to dig out the offbeat and unusual, otherwise known as human interest stories (remember the luckless elderly lady line judge who fell asleep at Wimbledon?) and he did it superbly during an age when journalism was distinctly low-tech - no mobiles or laptops then, just a notebook, pen, two fingers bashing a typewriter and then some bellowing down a telephone. You needed not only to be able to spin a phrase but also be fit enough to race your rivals to the nearest phone box.

Now a benign octogenarian, Jacko recalls with relish how he got a front-page splash when he put words into the mouth of athlete Sally Gunnell after her 400 metres hurdles victory at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics when he bellowed at her: "So Essex girls do come first eh Sally!" That was the Mirror's front-page headline.

The Olympics, like Wimbledon, was meat and drink to the Rotters, whose exploits might well have been made into a sort of Carry On film. Carry On Scribbling, perhaps? At Wimbledon you would see them huddled in the corner of the press bar comparing quotes or "nannies" - nanny goats being the Fleet Street rhyming slang for quotes.

I think I was the first to label Jacko "Ring of Steel", a sobriquet he enjoys to this day. That was because at virtually every Olympics he attended he was the first to sniff out the presence of any militia and possible hint of terrorism. Inevitably his first dispatch would begin: "Gun-toting cops threw a ring of steel around this frightened city last night..."

He and his Rotters antagonised the more serious hacks, particularly the Americans at Wimbledon where an off-the-wall question posed once even provoked a bout of fisticuffs between the United States and British media.

John Jackson attended 22 Olympics and was as interested in off-the-field shenanigans as the sporting action  ©Getty Images
John Jackson attended 22 Olympics and was as interested in off-the-field shenanigans as the sporting action ©Getty Images

Jacko once got a dressing down from Prince Phillip at a reception on board the royal yacht Britannia before the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch when he posed what the Duke considered an impertinent question. And the story goes that he was also interrogated by New Zealand’s Special Branch after one of his usual Ring of Steel disclosures.

While some of Jacko's stories may have been laced with a tad of journalistic licence there was always a foundation of truth in them. And when the Rotters got their teeth into a decent front-page story they could be more like Rottweilers.

But for Jacko it was not all froth and frippery. He came from a school of hard-hat journalism and although he never seemed to take himself that seriously, he was certainly serious about his work and his devotion to his newspaper. He loves to tease us, too.

Award-winning sports writer Patrick Collins recalls that he possessed a genuinely wicked sense of humour plus "a thick skin, a plausible manner and rat-like cunning."

"I went to sit next to him as he clattered away on a typewriter with demented energy, taking care to cover the paper so that not a word should be revealed. Across the room, an anxious broadsheet sports writer watched him at work. 'God knows what he’s actually writing now', he said. 'These people are capable of anything. And we are the ones who have to pick up the pieces.'

"Jackson sensed his unease from 20 paces. 'Got a nice little tail here,' he muttered. 'How many A’s are there in Baader-Meinhof?'"

If and when I ever get round to penning the tales from Hubbard’s Cupboard I shall certainly recall the occasion when a young sports writer covering his third Olympics in Munich crouched alongside a more senior member of his trade, Walter Bartleman, a veteran journal from London’s Evening Standard, on the fringe of the military airfield where the helicopter carrying the Arab terrorists and Israeli hostages had landed.

Bombs exploded and bullets whined in the air. "What do we do now, Bart?" Inquired this young reporter nervously. "Any advice?" Cockney Bartleman who had served as a major in a tanks regiment during World War II sniffed: "Yes, son. Keep yer bleedin’ head down!"

And there was the occasion, when, after covering a fight in Belfast, I was asked by my newspaper to try and get an interview with the Unionist leader the Reverend Ian Paisley. I tracked him down to a village hall on the outskirts of the city and thought the best way to approach him was to use the jackal technique of shouting a question from the back. "Are you a journalist?" He roared. "Yes," I replied. "Then can’t you see I’m here on God’s work," he bellowed. "Now fuck off!"